I bring you warm greetings from Nigeria with very sincere thanks to the initiators and organizers of this Peace Award. The news of the award came as a great surprise to me, knowing that compared to the very distinguished previous award recipients, I am a neophyte. I however humbly accept this with gratitude and appreciate the honour done to me.
Nigeria, with a population of over 150 million and a land mass of 923,000 square kilometres is blessed with people who have an incredible resilience and remain happy despite all odds. Recent news from there is mostly about the northern based Islamic fundamentalist group (Boko Haram) that is fighting for the substitution of the Nigerian constitution with the Sharia Islamic Law. It deplores Western education, culture and values as haram i.e. forbidden or evil. The members have caused multiple deaths, bombed government institutions, security offices, media houses, schools, Churches and even a UN building in Abuja, erroneously believing they are serving God by this. Their actions contradict what religion stands for. Religion vertically binds one to the Supreme Being in a worship relationship and horizontally to one’s neighbours in a loving relationship, promoting the common good. Like anything of value, religion can be used irresponsibly or irrationally to cause tension and destruction but that does not make it bad just as education does not become bad because some persons choose to use it negatively. Many years ago my people in the village of Kona in Taraba State were victims of social abandonment but were rescued by Catholic Irish missionary priests who gave them dignity through education. This is what authentic religion does: it improves not only the spiritual life but brings about social transformation.
There is a false impression that Muslims and Christians are at war with one another in Nigeria. Actually, Muslims and Christians live fairly well together. It is a few anti-social elements that employ religion in order to cause disaffection. They distract attention from what should be our national preoccupations such as social injustice, poverty, youth unemployment, ethnic disaffection; struggles over ownership of land, conflicts between farmers and pastoralists, bad governance, corruption, etc.
Some senior Muslim and Christian clerics as well as youths are encouraging channelling the positive values of the two dominant religions in Nigeria to peace, justice and development rather than resorting to violent confrontation over mere religious arguments. They are more forthright now in condemning acts of violence even if committed by their own. Interfaith youth groups are springing up. Northern political elders have been speaking out more loudly about the connection of violence and underdevelopment. Traditional rulers are fervent in mobilizing for peace at the grass roots, reasoning that our war should be war against crime, diseases, corruption, illiteracy and vices and not war against one another. Peace NGOs continue to multiply in Nigeria. The road to peace is still long, rough and tough, but I maintain that peace is possible.
The Federal Government has made big security budgets and deployed soldiers, police and other security agents to the troubled parts of the North, but this must be complemented by the benefits of democracy, good social infrastructure, social welfare and proper security. Leaders in governance must emphasize the common good of Nigerians and Nigeria first rather than their selfish interests. They must look beyond religion to identify the multidimensional sources of disaffection, reappraise the security system, intelligence gathering, improve security equipment and adequately train security officials. Muslims must put into practice the pillars of Islam, so the Christians, the cardinal virtues of Christianity and the traditional worshippers, their sacred values for a stable, prosperous and peaceful Nigeria.
My recent book, Peace, Not War: A Decade of Interventions in the Plateau State Crises describes my humble efforts and those of others to promote peaceful coexistence. I have worked with Muslim groups and leaders (foremost among who was Alhaji Haruna Abdullahi, the late Emir of Wase, whom I regarded as a brother and friend). I have initiated an interfaith youth vocational centre (still developing) to train young Muslims and Christians in vocational skills as well as the principles of dialogue and mutual respect so that they can become agents of peace in their communities. Similarly, we have started the construction of a Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace Centre. We need support for these and other well thought-out peace initiatives. As President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, and the first Vice President of the Regional Episcopal Conferences of West Africa, I hope to do more work of peace building and conflict resolution. This award is a further incentive. If we all light a candle of social hope, we shall certainly drive away the darkness of violence.
The world must tackle global insecurity and poverty collectively. At the entrance of the UN building in New York is this quote, “The sons of Adam are limbs of each other having been created of one essence. When one calamity of time affects one limb the other limbs cannot remain at rest…”
I thank the organizers for doing me and by extension, Nigeria, a great honour by this award. I dedicate it partly to my late Muslim friend and Emir of Wase, Alhaji Dr. Haruna Abdullahi, with whom we initiated various peace initiatives until his death last year and the good people of Plateau and Taraba States who have shaped my formative and working life.
Like St. Francis of Asissi, I pray and hope that we shall all do our part to be instruments of peace for a better and happier world. Thank you.